A go-getter grad

Mike Delfini

Mike Delfini is second-in-command at the Shedd Aquarium. — Photo: John R. Boehm Photography


By Jonathan Black — adapted from UIC Alumni magazine 

When Mike Delfini was just beginning his career as a graphic designer at the Field Museum, he’d take his lunch to the Shedd Aquarium to relax in the cool dark that surrounded the big fish tank of the Caribbean Reef.

Today, Delfini does more than just visit. As the Shedd’s chief operating officer and executive vice president, he coordinates just about everything that makes it one of the world’s great aquariums. Delfini oversees the Shedd’s research and education outreach and plays a major role in its branding and strategic marketing. He is responsible for the special exhibits that help draw nearly 2 million visitors annually.

Delfini led the management team for the Oceanarium Reimagined project and helped guide two major capital campaigns: the $60 million Fund for the Shedd and the $100 million Next Wave campaign. Before he became COO, he was vice president for planning and design.

How do you go from graphic artist to second-in-command at one of Chicago’s great cultural institutions?

“I get that question a lot,” says Delfini, who earned his BFA from UIC in 1985. “It’s all about looking for opportunity.”

A transfer student from College of DuPage, Delfini selected UIC because he wanted to be near opportunities for work in the city.

“UIC was a phenomenal experience,” Delfini says. “I loved the professors, many of whom had working studios. There were terrific summer internships. I’d always loved museums and cultural institutions, and they encouraged us to seek out work as designers there.”

After graduating, Delfini toted his portfolio all over the city until he landed a job at the Field Museum.

“If it wasn’t for the Oceanarium project, I’d probably still be there,” he says.

The Oceanarium, a $47.2 million addition, was the first expansion in the Shedd’s history. Delfini saw a job opportunity, marched into the aquarium and got hired.

Every department, from public relations to marketing and membership, soon required new staff. Delfini took on more responsibilities without a title upgrade or raise. “It was all about process and planning. I’m not an expert in conservation and education, but I could help every department deliver its goals,” he says.

Ted Beattie, Shedd president and CEO, says he is especially grateful to have Delfini working there.

“Mike has a unique understanding of the essential role planning plays in an organization,” Beattie says. “A project isn’t finished until he’s finished.”


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